Kathleen Wilkinson, a Philadelphia attorney and president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association had just graduated from the Villanova University School of Law when President Ronald Reagan announced in July of 1981 that he was nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to be the first woman to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Probably a third of the class at Villanova was comprised of women, which I was really encouraged by. But, you know, there were like, hardly any women on the bench. I had already found a job. There were only a few women in that law firm that I first started at,” Wilklinson said. “So when Justice O’Connor was appointed, she was a rock star. That is the woman attorney’s view of Justice O’Connor, she is our rock star.”
O’Connor, 91, retired from the Supreme Court in 2006. Today, three of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices are women — Justice Soni Sotomayor, Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
In addition, three of the seven justices on the state Supreme Court — Justice Debra Todd, first elected in 2007, Justice Christine Donohue, elected in 2015, and Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy, appointed in 2016 and then elected in 2017 — are women.
“Women judges throughout the nation owe a debt of gratitude to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for paving the way as the first female justice on the Supreme Court of the United States,” Todd said.
The first woman to serve on the state Supreme Court was Justice Anne X. Alpern, appointed to the court in 1961 by Gov. David Lawrence to fill a vacancy.
“Yet, despite the progressive attitude of Governor Lawrence, it was not until over a quarter-century later, in 1988, that another woman would sit on our Court. Justice Juanita Kidd Stout, also an interim appointee, became the second woman to serve on our Supreme Court, and the first African-American woman to serve on the Supreme Court of any state,” Todd said.
It wasn’t until 1996 that a woman was elected to a full 10-year term on the court when Justice Sandra Schultz Newman joined the court. In 2007, Todd, then, became just the second woman elected to a full-term on the court.
The majority of the commissioned judges now serving on the Superior Court, 10 of 14 judges, and the Commonwealth Court, 6 of 9 judges, are women, and women have served as the President Judges of both of these courts, Todd said.
“Numerous women serve as trial judges and many as President Judges and Administrative Judges in their respective counties. The slow but ultimate ascent of women as a crucial component of all of our courts is a sign of significant progress in bringing women’s perspective and commitment to gender equality to the Court,” Todd said.
More women lawyers
Thirty-eight percent of attorneys were women in 2020, according to the most recent report card completed by the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Women in the Profession Committee. The committee first issued this report in 1995 when just 24 percent of attorneys in Pennsylvania were female.
The Philadelphia Bar Association established the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Award in 1993, an honor intended to recognize women attorneys with superior legal talent and significant legal accomplishments and have worked to further the advancement of women in the profession and the community.
Wilkinson received the O’Connor Award in 2019. But earlier, in 2013, when Wilkinson was serving as chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, O’Connor attended an event at which all of the O’Connor Award winners were present.
“It was just such a wonderful event. She is so warm in person,” Wilkinson said. “She’s almost like a mother figure to many of us because of her icon status, but extremely approachable.
“It was just so wonderful to be in her company. and to see her in action and to see how respected she was and what a consensus builder she was, what a great role model of civility and for her ability while on the bench to try to get consensus in tough times.”
Wilkinson said there’s no question that she and many other women have followed O’Connor’s lead and made tremendous strides in breaking glass ceilings in the legal field.
“I feel personally very blessed. I’ve accomplished many things. If you had asked me in law school, would I be the president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association? I couldn’t ever imagine that. If you had asked me in law school, would I be the Chancellor Philadelphia Bar Association, I wouldn’t have imagined that. If you’d asked me will you be a partner? and I’m a partner at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker, which is a national firm. We have 800 attorneys. I couldn’t have imagined that. But I have been able to accomplish my goals,” she said.
“But I will say this, there are still obstacles to women attorneys,” Wilkinson said.
“Balancing career-family is still an obstacle,” Wilkinson said. “Women do more of the child care and elder care than their counterparts who are men. The pandemic was very difficult. Women were sitting on their Zooms, you know, defending clients at depositions, and their children are on their Zooms, trying to go to school. Some women have left the profession as a result of it being too much.”
Wilkinson pointed to recent American Bar Association research showing that many women attorneys still feel frustrated by the lack of gender diversity in their firms and feel like they are unfairly struggling to get advancement opportunities. That research found that 63 percent of women attorneys surveyed said they felt like they were “perceived as less committed” to their careers and 53 percent felt like they were being treated as “token” hires.